In his aesthetic masterwork The Little Drummer Girl, acclaimed novelist John LeCarré has his main character, the British actress Charlie, lured from the London stage into the violence and intrigue of Middle East terrorism – you’ll have a part in “the theater of the real” is the way Charlie’s Israeli intelligence handler puts it to her. The novel itself is superior layered theater. Snow, by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, is remarkable theater in its own way.
Many are the nonfiction books today about the play of religion and secularism between Islam and the West, but Snow as novel takes us into that story in a way that “issue” books cannot possibly do. Snow as art invites readers into a world of conflicting impulses, tormented loves, and even farcical actions that can emerge from the warring values residing within individuals caught in the bitter and very real theater of today’s collision between Western ideals and Islamic extremism. Pamuk, a Turkish writer and recipient of international literary awards, sits his readers down to a compelling drama that takes place during a three-day period in the life of the poet Ka, who has just returned from twelve years of political exile in Frankfurt to the remote Turkish town of Kars, the home of his cultured, middle-class youth.
Many are the threads of Snow’s absorbing plot. Ka, hoping for an anodyne solution to a long and depressing period in which poems have quit coming to him in Germany, has accepted an assignment as a journalist to go to Kars to write about a wave of suicides by teenage girls forbidden to wear their head scarves at school. He arrives by bus at the start of a blinding three-day snowstorm, which quickly seals Kars off from the Western world, Ka’s frame of reference for more than a decade. But it’s the possibility for love, we learn, which is Ka’s real motivation for accepting this assignment. For in Kars there lives the beautiful Ipek, a recently divorced friend of Ka’s from his youth. He has gone to boldly and abruptly declare his love (read: obsession).
The elation of romance is matched, if not surpassed, by the happiness Ka finds when a flurry of poems suddenly begin accumulating in his notebook, poems which Ka finds upon reflection to be organized around the “mysterious underlying structure” of a snowflake. But neither romance nor poetry can save him from a personal crisis of faith, which becomes as disorienting as the city itself becomes in the play between religious radicals and secularists.
Ka’s crisis of faith touches not only in his romance with Ipek but also his encounters with her sister (a political Islamist) and others: the police, several of the town’s odd and zany characters, poverty-stricken families, and militant religious and secular groups. There’s Nicep, a curious irony of religious student wanting to become the world’s first Islamic sci-fi writer, who tells Ka that because Ka is of the intelligentsia he will never become a believer in God. There’s the mysterious, charismatic Blue, who is in hiding. In one of Ka’s long conversations with Blue, in which Ka reasons that surely God must be the source of the happiness he is now experiencing through the new poems, Blue replies: “I don’t want to destroy your illusions, but your love for God comes out of Western romantic novels… And know this: People who seek only happiness never find it.” Through such scenes, there are many of them, we enter into the sympathies, cognitive dissonance, and conversational insights of Kar’s townspeople, who are entangled in the interplay of religious-secular tensions and contradictions.
And in what is central to the novel, Ka, through the forceful personality of the famous actor and playwright Sunay Zaim, finds himself becoming the pawn of a leftist theater troupe. In collusion with a military determined to restrain local Islamist radicals, Zaim pulls off a bloody coup during a theater production in a packed house. The intrigue that follows sets in motion events that endanger Ka’s life, and it is only after the snow finally ends, the roads are cleared, and Kars reopens to the West that we discover the end of Ka’s bid for love and happiness.
Even though it has been eighteen years since September 11, 2001, many people in the West, arguably more so in America than in Europe, still hold remorselessly to caricatured pictures of Muslims and their communities. Pamuk invites us to look elsewhere. In Snow, he opens the curtain on a world we are not familiar with. You won’t be disappointed if you accept his invitation. But then again, as LeCarré’s Charlie learned, you might find some roles back in the theater of the real, including perhaps your own, disturbing.
Reviewed by Charles Strohmer
©2019 by Charles Strohmer
Image: Creative Commons, courtesy of Marshall Space Flight Center